Warner Bros. // 1982 // 139 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // May 3rd, 2004
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim's musical masterpiece!
Above Mrs. Lovett's less-than-successful meat pie shop, in a single room adorned simply with a chair and a razor, Sweeney Todd sits and waits. Recently escaped from an Australian prison, Todd is back in London to settle scores. Sent away on trumped-up charges by the cruel, wicked Judge Turpin, Todd (who was really Benjamin Barker before his "return") has seen his family suffer at the hateful hands of the jaundiced jurist. Turpin has even made himself guardian over Todd's daughter Joanna and has his evil eyes on marrying her. Setting up a barbering business above Lovett's low-rent restaurant seems the perfect ruse. But the killing of a corrupt colleague in the hairstyling trade leaves Todd with unfinished business, and Mrs. Lovett with a body to dispose of. Together, they hit upon an ingenious plan. Todd will get his retribution, and Mrs. Lovett will use the "leftovers" in her cuisine.
Soon, all of London is swarming to the pie shop. Todd can't supply enough "meat" to match the demand. Still consumed by rage, he plots Judge Turpin's downfall. A young sailor named Anthony (who rescued Barker/Todd as he drifted at sea) has met and fallen in love with Joanna and wants to steal her away from the horrible arbitrator. When Turpin discovers this, he has Joanna shipped off to an insane asylum. Anthony goes to Todd for help. The Demon Barber of Fleet Street devises a plan. He will get his payback after all. But the price that everyone pays may be too great, as violence begets even more violence at the hands of Sweeney Todd.
When it opened on the Great White Way in 1970, no one could contemplate the impact it would have on the future of musical theater. Before it arrived, a typical greasepaint gala was overblown and lavish, substituting sumptuous set designs and costumed antics for anything resembling innovation. From hits like Oliver! to full-out flops like the André Previn/Alan Jay Lerner-penned Coco (starring the sensational songstress...Katharine Hepburn?), Broadway proved that the stodgy old notions of the stagy musical were on life support. Then a few counterculture craftsmen busted through with the anthem pop-rock of Hair, and the "Age of Aquarius" was born. But the legitimate stage wanted its audience back and someone needed to come along and supercede the hippies. Much to everyone's amazement, the savior was right under their hypercritical noses.
After a five-year absence from the stage (having seen two of his more adventurous efforts fail outright), a soon-to-be legend of the theater came to the rescue with a show that spanned the generations to spark a renaissance. The show was Company, and its creator, Stephen Sondheim, ushered in a new Golden Age of experimental Broadway shows. Company was a revue, a loosely interlinked set of scenes strung along a plotline involving Bobby, a mid-30s bachelor, and his interaction with some married friends. It marked the first in a long line of concept musicals that Sondheim and his frequent collaborator, director Hal Prince, would oversee in the next decade. With such innovative titles as Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), and Pacific Overture (1976), Sondheim and Prince reestablished the American musical. But it wasn't until 1979 that Sondheim hit upon a formula that would literally redefine what a musical could actually be about. His horror/comedy cavalcade was called Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Nothing about this show should work. Its slaughter-meets-cannibalism storyline is too graphic and grotesque for the average, mostly mild-mannered, middle-aged theater patron. The vast majority of Sweeney's dialogue and emotional resonance is featured in song, not in expositional exchanges. The staging is sparse and the characters resemble ancient political cartoons come to life. And yet somehow, Sondheim got it all to work. He managed the magnificent feat of finding the proper center between cabaret and slasher film, opus and bawdy sing-along. Featuring a flawless cast (including Angela Lansbury, Queen of the Broadway musical), a seedy, sinister tone, and a wealth of memorable music, Sweeney Todd was so far ahead of its time that today, in 2004, people are still marveling at how it -- and old Steve -- got away with it. Watching it in light of the last 20 years of musical theater, you can see how others like Andrew Lloyd Webber took the dark tone and complex narrative nature and, with the help of Trevor Nunn's eye for garish opulence, created Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard. You can even imagine the start of such stage stalwarts as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon in this epic, apocalyptic tale. Not since Candide had such a multifaceted musical messed with tone and atmosphere the way Sweeney Todd did. It marked the beginning of the maturation process for all Great White Way wannabes.
Sweeney Todd -- this Entertainment Channel version of the show was taken from a 1982 national touring company staging that featured a few members of the original cast -- is simply stunning, a fully realized modern opera set within the weird world of Victorian London. Instead of a regular song-and-dance display, Sondheim crafted something much richer, more detailed and diverse. He has taken a tall tale, mixed it with a little contemporary psychology, and passed it through a bloody revenge thriller to make a melodic anomaly -- the first truly tuneful terror tale. There is limited movement among the performers on stage; no full-blown production numbers or sap-happy tap-alongs are offered. Instead, director Hal Prince provides a practically bare stage, with only scaffolds and moveable set pieces to suggest the claustrophobic and dark nature of the UK's industrial age. England in the period of the difference engine was awash in a thick coating of soot, the remnants of the new mechanical revolution. It is within this bleak, black structural skeleton that events play out in marvelous moments of macabre monster mythology. Throats are cut, corpses get stacked up like cordwood, and human meat pies are baked in large, loaming ovens. Intertwined between the doublecrossing and death-dealing is the baneful, baroque score conceived by Sondheim as a tribute to the operetta, mixed with the more experimental, poignant nature of his more current works. This compositional ideal transformed the musical into a messenger not only of emotion, but also of environment and the existential.
From the moment the chorus commands us to "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," to the finale which seems to suggest the universal nature of the sin and slaughter we've witnessed, this show is just plain spectacular. Sondheim purposely avoids the pop song mentality with his music, creating signature themes for each character and then reusing them throughout the narrative. Yet there are standout numbers, wonderful odes to love ("Johanna," "Pretty Women"), life ("Not While I'm Around"), and questionable cuisine ("The Worst Pies in London," "A Little Priest," "God, That's Good"). During many of the musical showstoppers, the spine literally tingles with untold entertainment.
From a performance standpoint, the cast is superb. It is clear why Lansbury won the Tony Award for her performance; her Mrs. Lovett is everything the role demands -- equal parts comic, calculating, and even a little crazy. George Hearn (who would later gain huge fame with the role of Albin in the musical version of La Cage Aux Folles) plays the title character with a mix of bluster and bitterness that accentuates Todd's homicidal tendencies. Although not the original Sweeney (sadly, Len Cariou's Tony-winning work in the role is left for memory to keep immortalized), Hearn never once hints that the character is not his own invention. Everyone else, from Edmund Lyndeck's ominous Judge Turpin to Ken Jennings's endearing Tobias Ragg, is pitch-perfect and terrific. If you are not moved by the overlapping mania of "God, That's Good" or touched by the haunting duet "Pretty Women," there is something wrong with your pleasure centers. Sweeney Todd marks a monumental moment in musical theater, and for fans of this show (and this version of it), the wait for a DVD release has been far too long.
So what's the downside of rushing out and buying this disc, you say? Is there anything about the presentation that should give you pause or force you to pass it by? Well, if you demand the slightest bit of bonus content when you acquire a title in the digital format, then there is a huge hindrance to grabbing this goodie forthwith. Someone over at Warner Brothers has decided that since this Broadway masterpiece only appeals to the cultural snobs in the audience, brightening it up with bells and whistles seems pointless and financially perilous. How else do you justify the significant lack of menu screen options? Warner must believe that only diehard devotees to Sondheim or Sweeney will be interested in this 22-year-old title (even though PBS endlessly replays the "concert" version of the show, featuring Hearn and Patti LuPone, during pledge drives). At least they made it worth your while from the technical standpoint. The audio and video are stunning, better than the bargain-basement VHS copies that have circulated for years. While there is some flaring in the old-fashioned tape transfer, the 1.33:1 full frame picture is still quite vibrant and colorful. And there is a new soundtrack -- a Dolby Digital 5.1 remastering that is pure aural bliss (it can lead to a little performer/voice displacement, however, but it's nothing fatal). But there is not another thing here to suggest Sweeney Todd's power as a show (it won eight Tonys) or as a piece of theater history. While you can access the lyrics via the "subtitle" option, some manner of libretto, character guide, or actor filmography would have been nice. Sweeney is a wonderful work of theatrical art. It should have been treated with more respect.
There have long been rumors that Tim Burton would direct a movie version of this gleeful Gothic gross-out, and the mind boggles (and the aesthetic timbers tingle) at the thought. Envisioning a cross between The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow is enough to give musical lovers the "when will it happen?" shivers. Hopefully it will take place one day. But until then, we can witness a truly Victorian vision of the cutthroat ritual of revenge. This DVD is a marvelous reminder of the magic of musical theater. Stephen Sondheim saved the genre and its Broadway home base. See Sweeney Todd to see how he did it.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Stephen Sondheim's Official Site